David Bowie’s 1983 music video Let’s Dance was the starting point for a new deep listening experience, curated by Daniel Browning for Urban Theatre Projects, which examines the representation of First Nations people in global popular culture.

The project, which is called Momentum, will be performed in Blak Box at Barangaroo, Sydney until November 17 and features leading First Nations arts practitioners including composer and violinist Eric Avery, musician-composer Troy Russell, vocalist/performer Ursula Yovich, visual artist Vernon Ah Kee, legal professor and radio broadcaster Larissa Behrendt, poet and literary editor Evelyn Araluen, spoken word artist and podcaster Lorna Munro, emerging writer Joel Davison, and Sydney Festival Artistic Director and theatre director Wesley Enoch. The artists don’t refer directly to Let’s Dance, instead they riff around ideas inspired by it.

Momentum promotional image. Photograph © Joshua Morris

On Tuesday November 5 at 10am, in collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project, acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform with Eric Avery in a free event on the Stargazer Lawn, Barangaroo, as Browning talks to artists from Momentum about the challenges for the arts today as polarised debates over the climate, Indigenous and human rights erupt around the world.

Browning is a respected journalist, radio broadcaster and sound artist from the Bundjalung and Kullilli peoples of far northern New South Wales and south-western Queensland. Since 2005, he has produced and presented Awaye!, the Indigenous art and culture program on ABC Radio National.

He was 10 years old when Bowie’s Let’s Dance video came out. “I guess being 10 and becoming conscious around that age of images and politics, to a degree, it was transformative for me because I was actually seeing Aboriginal people on the screen,” he tells Limelight.

“Prior to that the only images I had seen were in the news media, so these weren’t neutral images. [In Bowie’s] film clip the representation of Aboriginality is overwhelmingly positive so that’s what struck me when I first saw Let’s Dance. Bowie was a superstar. What’s unusual in this film clip, he said at the time he wanted to represent a side of Australia that hadn’t been seen before, and that’s practically a verbatim quote. The song has nothing to do with the film and vice versa, he made a very clear editorial view to represent this side of Australia, and I would see it as an oppositional view.”

“The reason that I’m riffing on this film clip is that it’s possibly the first time that Aboriginality or Australian Indigenous culture intersects with global popular culture. So, he makes a clear editorial decision to talk about things like the British nuclear tests – there’s a very short scene which alludes to that – and things like domestic slavery, forced labour, the Stolen Generation, and also the exodus or internal diaspora of Indigenous people from the country to the city.”

Browning refers to the way Bowie uses red shoes in the clip  – a reference to the grim Hans Christian Andersen fairytale – “and transposes it to the Australian outback. The red shoes [represent] a philosophical death dance really, and I’m thinking are we are at a point in history where we are gathering towards some kind of popular movement? I’m thinking about all the challenges with the climate –the climate crisis, more or less – and how perhaps there are correlations between the planet that we have inherited and that we are passing on to the next generation,” he says.

Blak Box, Barangaroo. Photograph © Barton Taylor

“It is a bit like that moment in 1788 when the tall ships entered what is now Sydney Harbour and what kind of apocalyptic moment that was; it certainly changed everything. I’m also thinking about that in terms of global politics and how maybe we’re at a point where something may happen. I don’t know, I am speculating here, and riffing from the images onto this idea of infinite possibility but of also imminent threat. I am very interested in where we are. Every point in time is crucial but I just have this feeling that our faith in certain institutions which western liberal democracy has held up as unassailable – and that is democracy itself – [is waning]. People are losing faith in those things because they can be easily bought. That’s the rumination.”

Asked about the artists he has gathered for Momentum, he says, “it’s like [inviting] 10 of your favourite black fellas into a room and sitting down and having a conversation with them. Literally that is what I did. But they were all interviewed separately and commissioned separately and asked to think about these things individually, and the curator’s job is to see how these things coalesce. In many ways, the listening I want to provoke is a deeper reading of what’s going on in this film clip and how these moments on the screen tell a much deeper story. Bowie gave people a kind of a crash course in Australian history, and also contemporaneity. I’m interested in how we talk about the past, present and future as being quite distinct from each other but I’m seeing them as continuous. There is this idea of the contemporaneous past, that it’s possible to look at these images and say are they telling us something about now. These images don’t exist in a vacuum at all, so the idea of the contemporaneous past is one many black fellas would understand.”

Speaking to Limelight, classically trained violinist and composer Eric Avery, who is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr man, says that Bowie’s film clip was legendary at the dance college NAISDA where he studied. “Dancers [would say] ‘oh yes, David Bowie, he likes black dancers. He did a clip with members of the dance college in the 80’s so it was in spoken word that I heard about it.”

Avery says that he and Browning discussed the clip “and the meaning in the piece, and what I could create with the video clip being an inspiration. So, it’s like I looked at it in another way, from my lens. I decided to maybe not focus on the melodies from David Bowie, though I was inspired a little bit by the bass line, but I think the main thing was that I had my own narrative when I watched the film clip. I even turned the music down and watched how it was put together and how Aboriginal people were represented in the film clip. And that’s what Daniel and I spoke about – different ideas around racism and a bunch of other social issues that that film clip brought up. So, for me as an Indigenous composer, I thought about different ideas about landscape and how I can put that into music. I have different ways of portraying my own imagery in my music so I looked at the imagery in the film clip and I was inspired by it.”

“I have learned my great granddad’s songs and I sing them with the violin,” says Avery. “I don’t sing here but those melodies are always apparent in my music. I was trying to create a sense of space. I think that it’s my interpretation of the Australian landscape. It’s sparse music maybe, but to me it’s like how you are in the desert and at night the sky is like a dome and the land is very flat. That’s one of my techniques, I relate visual stimuli to music, and I think that came across because part of [Bowie’s] video was in the desert.”

Avery is one of several artists who will put in live appearances during Momentum. As well as performing with Yo-Yo Ma, he will perform in the Blak Box on three occasions.

Ursula Yovich, meanwhile, has recorded a version of Let’s Dance in language, translated by Jakelin Troy at the University of Sydney. “There’s no other way to describe it except spine-tingling,” says Browning. “There’s so much heart and beautiful tone in her voice. I would say the performance she gave is the heart, and the meat of this work.”

Momentum runs at Blak Box, Barangaroo until November 17. Yo-Yo performs with Eric Avery on November 5 at 10am

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